JUAN COBO’S  SHILU  实录 (1593)


Institute for the History of Natural Science

Chinese Academy of Sciences


presented at the

Conference on History of Mathematics:

“Portugal and the East II”


October 10-12, 1998

1.        Fray Juan Cobo and His Writings

2.        Juan Cobo’s Shilu 实录

3.        Western Knowledge of Geography Reflected in the


3.1 Ptolemaic Cosmology

3.2 Spherical Earth

3.3 Circumference of the Earth

3.4 Different Climate Zones

  3.5 World Map

4.  The Character and Significance of the Shilu



1.   Fray Juan Cobo and His Writings

Little is known about Juan Cobo’s early life except for the uncertain year of his birth, 1546, and the name of his hometown, Consuegra (now in Toledo Province, Spain). Juan Cobolater Chinese name高母羡) was sent to a school run by the Dominican Order in his early teens, after which he became a Friar at the monastery of Santo Tomás in Avilawhere he stayed until he decided to leave Spain as a missionary to the Far East.

Like most Spanish Friars who went to the Orient in the sixteenth-century, Juan Cobo first went to Mexico where he spent several months before travelling on to the Philippines. When he arrived there in May of 1588, he settled in Manila and soon began his missionary work. But his primary objective was to enter China, the mysterious and vast continent to the north. Therefore, Juan Cobo immediately began to study Chinese with local Chinese immigrants in Manila. He studied dilligently, learned quickly, and not long thereafter could speak to local people, and could read and write about 3,000 Chinese characters. He was the first missionary in the Philippines who preached to local believers in Chinese, although he did so with some kind of Southern Fujian dialectHokkien.

His success was noted by Santiago Vera, the Governor of Manila, who attended one of Juan Cobo’s sermons and was both very pleased and astonished to see that the Chinese congregation was so attracted by this Spanish Fray’s preaching.

In fact, Juan Cobo himself was greatly impressed by the Chinese people and their culture. In a letter to a friend he wrote:

There is something that should be emphasized. The people we know and who come here are the lowest – sailors, fishermen, and handicraftsmen. They come for finding food, although they do not like doing this. It is amazing that they are so witty and so clever that we could not find even one who could not be spoken to, not about fishing but about letters, celestial movements, morals, courtesy, and justice. They know lots of moral philosophy, but without science. [1]

Although we do not know with whom Juan Cobo studied Chinese literature, from the elegant sentences and various especially pertinent phrases from ancient Chinese classics which he quoted in his books written in Chinese, it may be assumed that there was at least one Chinese scholar working with him.

In 1592, Toyotomi Hideyoshi 丰臣秀吉 (1537-1598), the feudal lord and shogun who had just completed the unification of Japan and was launching the first war to invade Korea, sent an emissary to the Philippines. In return, the Spanish Governor, Pedro Gomez Dasmarinas, appointed Juan Cobo as his ambassador to Japan. Cobo went, and although he apparently made a success of his mission, he never returned to the Philippines. Unfortunately, his boat sank in a terrible storm on his way back to Manila in November, 1592.

With this brief sketch of Juan Cobo’s life and career as a missionary in mind, it is now possible to consider his writings in more detail. In addition to some documents that may be attributed to him, it is known with certainty that he wrote or translated at least the following four books: 

1Carta de la China (Letter about China)

This is a book of in the form of a letter dealing with daily life and  customs of the Chinese living in Manila.

2Doctrina Cristiana en Letra y Lengua China (Christian Doctrine in the Chinese Language)

This is one of the first three books printed in the Philippines, in which Cobo introduces the basic doctrines of Christianity in the Chinese language [2] . There is a copy in the Library of Congress, Washington D. C.; another copy is preserved in the Vatican Library.

3Espejo Rico del Claro Corazón (Precious Mirror of the Clear Heart), orin pin yin,  Mingxin Baojian 明心宝鉴 [3] .

This is a handwritten, bilingual workChinese text in the left, while Spanish translation by Cobo in the right. This book contains many moral aphorisms and sentences selected from both Confucian and Taoist works, and Cobo himself mentions the original author as Lipo-Pun Huan. According to Paul Pelliot (1878-1945), the author of the Mingxin Baojian is Fan Liben范立本, and this is the earliest work that translated ancient Chinese philosophy into a Western language [4] .


In what follows, Juan Cobo’s Shilu will be the focus of more detailed analysis.

               Fig. 1 Portrait of Juan Cobo                                 Fig. 2 The cover page of the Shilu

2.    Juan Cobo’s Shilu 实录

The complete title of the Shilu is Bian Zhengjiao Zhenchuan Shilu 辨正教真传实录, or in Spanish Apologia de la Verdadera Religión en Letra y Lengua China (Veritable Record of the True Religion in the Chinese Language).

As a matter of a fact, the Shilu is really a catechism, a manual of religion arranged as usual in the form of questions and answers meant to instruct believers, to win converts, and to teach the truth of Christianity. Somewhat earlier, in 1584, Michele Ruggieri 罗明坚(1543-1607), an Italian Jesuit who was the first Western missionary to arrive in China in the sixteenth century, published his Tianzhu Shilu 天主实录 (Veritable Record of the Lord of Heaven). It is considered to be the first book about xixue 西学(Western learning) written in Chinese and printed in China. Somewhat later, in 1604, the well-known Italian Jesuit Matteo Ricci 利玛窦(1552-1610) published his most famous work, Tianzhu Shiyi 天主实义 (The True Meaning of the Lord of Heaven), a book that was quite popular among early seventeenth-century learned Chinese [5] . Thus Juan Cobo’s Shilu, when it was published in Manila in the year 1593, was nine years later than Ruggieri’s but eleven years before Ricci’s Tianzhu Shiyi appeared in China.

It seems, in fact, that Cobo knew of Ruggieri’s Shilu. On the other hand, it is not so clear whether Ricci had read Cobo’s Shilu or not. In any case, the contents of Ruggieri’s book are purely religious, whereas both Cobo’s Shilu and Ricci’s Shiyi  combine, to some extent, religion with philosophy and science. Therfore Cobo’s was the first book to, appear in China, in Chinese, with any scientific content, and therefore it is worth further studying the possible influence of Cobo’s work on Matteo Ricci’s proselytization methods in China.

All three books are also constructed in the form of a catechism, a device initiated by the Church Fathers in medieval times, and which became much more important after the second invention of printing in  fifteenth-century Europe. In fact, the content of Juan Cobo’s Shilu is a conversation between a Western missionary and a Chinese scholar. The former is referred to as seng or sengshi僧师 (monk or master monk), whereas the latter is referred to as xuezhe学者(scholar). Their dialogues are full of wisdom, courtesy and mutual respect. There is no reason to doubt that the“monk” is Juan Cobo himself.

Except for a few lines of Spanish at the very beginning of the Shilu, the remainder of the text is in Chinese.

It is interesting to compare  the Shilu with another book by Cobo, Doctrina Cristiana en Letra y Lengua China. The latter was written for ordinary Chinese Christians by simply presenting the basic ideas of Christianity. On the other hand, Cobo’s Shilu was intended for those Chinese who were well-educated in traditional literature but wanted to know more about the origin and principles of the world, or as Cobo believed, the truth behind Christianity. Therefore, he used scientific knowledge and logical reasoning to make this truth as apparent a possible. In all, the Shilu consists of the following nine chapters:

(1)             Discussion of proofs of the true religion;

(2)             On the existence of an infinite being, the principle of all


(3)             Talking about infinite things;

(4)             On matters of geography;

(5)             About the reality of earthly things;

(6)             On plants of the earth and other vegetables;

(7)             On things of the animal kingdom;

(8)             On how animals know what they should eat and drink;

(9)             On how animals of the world know the medicines they

                 must take.

In general, the first three chapters are more theological than philosophical, whereas the other six are philosophical and even scientific. It is likely that Juan Cobo never actually finished this book, due to his  unexpected death in 1592.

Unlike Ricci’s Shiyi, Cobo’s Shilu was not widely circulated among  learned Chinese, and there is no evidence that this book ever reached the mainland or was circulated in China. In fact, the only extant copy is kept in the National Library of Madrid, and only came to wider attention in  1986, when a Spanish Dominican, Fidel Villarroel, in collaboration with other two Dominicans working at the University of Santo Tomas in Manila, published a facsimile reproduction of the copy in Madrid, along with both Spanish and English introductions and translations.

3. Western Knowledge of Geography Reflected in the Shilu

Although the ultimate goal of the Shilu was to propagate the Christian faith, Cobo placed particular emphasis on geography at the end of  Chapter Four:

The earth exists and fields exist; because there are fields, there are men; because there are men, there is wealth; because there is wealth, it has been used. Therefore it can be seen that geography was created by the Lord of Heaven. So the Lord of Heaven is the master of geography, and geography is the master of men, because men have to rely on geography. [6]

Clearly there was important information about European ideas concerning geography in Cobo’s Shilu, all of which was new to sixteenth- and seventeenth-century learned Chinese.

3.1    Ptolemaic Cosmology

Ptolemaic cosmology basically involves a geocentric system which was regarded by the medieval Church as a literally true description of the  universe. Although the Shilu was written nearly half a century after Nicholas Copernicus (1473-1543) published his De Revolutionibus (1543), Juan Cobo did not mention the new Copernican picture of the universe. [7]

As for the traditional Aristotelian-Ptolemaic picture of the universe, although the number of spheres sometimes varied, the basic framework  was always the same, with the central earth as the point from which all motions were defined according to Aristotelian principles. [8] In an illustration given in the Shilu, the spheres around  the earth are, depicted in the following order: air, fire, the Moon, Mercury, Venus, the Sun, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, fixed stars, and finally, the Lord of Heaven. It is this last region, beyond the fixed stars, where all the angels and just men see God.

Fig. 3 Ten Heavens

3.2    Spherical Earth

The core of Chapter Four of the Shilu is devoted to arguments meant to establish that the earth is indeed a sphere. Although some thinkers had proposed similar ideas in ancient China, Juan Cobo was the first to present a systematic argument in Chinese on the spherical shape of the earth. For example, he offers the following arguments to support this theory.

(1)                    Suppose two ships are on the sea at a distance of somewhat more than forty li; we can only see the mast of the other ship, while its body is not seen by our eyes. It is not that the ship is small or big, but what happens on land also happens at sea. If the land is round, the water is round also. And because the water is round, therefore a ship looms larger as it approaches floating on the water, and a man looking at her sees her growing bigger. [9]

(2)                     If the form of the earth were square, it would naturally have four angles (like a vertical cliff). Hence (in one direction) a man could see a fire on a mountain from even one hundred li away. Nevertheless, (in another direction) a man could not see a brilliant fire on the top of Tai mountaina very high mountain, even if he were less than  five li away from the fire. This is  not due to the fact that the fire is big or small, but because the fire on the mountain was hidden from the man even though he was near it. [10]

       Fig 4. If the form of earth were square

(3)                    The dim glow of the moon borrows its light from the sun, and is interposed by the earth looking up the moon, the shadow of the earth can be seen as a segment of a circle. At any given time the eclipse of the moon is round but not square. [11]

3.3     Circumference of the Earth

The circumference of the earth as computed by Cobo is 6300 pu , where one pu equals ten li . He explains as follows:

To know accurately the size of the earth, one must consider what the ancient scholars had used as tools. There are a total of 360 degrees around Heaven. The whole form of Heaven is divided into four quarters, and each quarter is equal to 90 degrees. … Using a string (attached to a protractor) to measure the North pole at a place on ground, (then go southward) 175 li from the place and measure the North pole to get 1 degree (as the difference). How can this be proved? Suppose a man stood in the North so that the North pole was just above his head; once he walked 175 li and then measured the North pole by a string (attached to a protractor), the difference would be 1 degree. In the same way, the degrees would increase or decrease as he walked northward or southward. Therefore the size of the earth can be known. A quarter of  (the circumference) of the earth equals to 1575 pu, and the whole circumference is 6300 pu. [12]

Fig. 5  The size of the earth

     That is                      176 ´ 90 = 1575 (pu)

                                      1575 ´ 4 = 6300 (pu)

                                  6300 ´ 10 = 63000 (li)


Unfortunately, we do not know where this data came from, nor what scale Juan Cobo used, so it is difficult to estimate the accuracy of his conclusions. However, this is the first text written in Chinese which directly states the size of the earth based on its roundness and the calculations which follow from this assumption.

3.4   Different Climate Zones

The text says:

Under the universe there are six different divisions, and each one is subdivided into three parts. Three parts are near the North Pole and the other three parts are near the South Pole. But in the lands near the North Pole and South Pole, the four seasons are not defined. Among (the six divisions), there are two in which the climate is very cold. Even though one puts on thick furs, one could not defend oneself. Men cannot inhabit these cold lands. There are two in which the climate is very hot, but who can (survive) without heat? Therefore those who can bear heat can inhabit these lands. As for the other two divisions of the climate, the heat and the cold may be harmonized. To drink hot soup and to wear warm fur in winter, to drink cold water and to wear hemp clothes in summer; when spring and autumn come, the weather is pleasant and suitable. [13]

Fig. 6 Climate zones and the world map

3.5    World Map

In addition to Juan Cobo’s description of differences between   climate zones, the Shilu also supplies a map of the world, although it is only a  very rough one, and only covers the Northern Hemisphere. Among places marked in particular on this map: Daming guo 大明国 (China), Weiseguo 微色果 (Mexico), Riben guo 日本国 (Japan), Lüsong 吕宋 (Luzon), Malijia 麻力甲(Malacca). All these places were clearly of special importance for the sixteenth-century Spanish who came to the Far East. Meanwhile, as regards latitude, the locations of all these places as given on the map in the Shilu are basically correct. For example, Mexico, Japan, Luzon, and Malacca are placed, respectively, at about 25° - 30°, 15° - 30°, 20°, and 5° north latitude. On the other hand, longitudes were not included, but despite this shortcoming, Juan Cobo’s map is an accurate reflection of the level of mathematical and geographical knowledge in his day.

As for the Southern Hemisphere, Juan Cobo only says: “there are very few vestiges of human beings (there), so it is not possible to examine the details.” [14]

4.  The Character and Significance of  the Shilu

Because the Shilu was written for learned Chinese, there are numerous phrases and idioms which were either directly quoted or slightly altered from Chinese classical literature. For instance, at the very beginning of the book, Juan Cobo writes:

The Guangming Xiangsheng Xuezhe光明先圣学者 (The Brilliant Prophet Scholar) said: “  To conform with one’s nature is called dao, to cultivate the dao is called jiao.” Nature and dao are the same, how can the jiao have different methods (to practice)? [15]

Here the the Brilliant Prophet Scholar, is a reference to Confucius, and the quotation is from the Zhongyong中庸chapter of the Liji礼记. The reason why Cobo used this phrase was to propagate the basic idea of Christianity, for he wanted to convey the idea that there is only one unique and true religion.

We can also find many phrases from other ancient Chinese literature, such as putian zhi xia, shuaitu zhi bin普天之下,率土之滨 from the Shijing诗经, bu she zhouye不舍昼夜 from the Lunyu论语, gengtian zaojinq耕田凿井 from the Jirang Ge击壤歌, taiji 太极and liangyi两仪 from the Yijing易经, etc.

However, Juan Cobo sometimes employed commonly – used Chinese terms to express Western concepts, and at other times he created new combinations of Chinese characters in order to do so. One example is the phrase heshang wang和尚王, which he introduced the word “bishop”.

Another characteristic of the of  Shilu, as mentioned above, is that the author used science and logical reasoning to advance Christian doctrines. Although special emphasis was placed on the knowledge of geography,  Juan Cobo also reported facts and results dealing with various natural sciences, including botany, zoology, geology, climatology, and medicine.

In conclusion, Juan Cobo’s Shilu occupies a place of special significance in the history of science in China, primarily because it was the first book written in Chinese to introduce the Western religion, philosophy, and science together. Moreover, the approach Juan Cobo adopted in this book may have been a harbinger of those missionary tactics applied shortly thereafter by the Jesuits, namely their strategies known as“accommodation”and “knowing”, which they pursued in hopes of convincing the Chinese to convert to the Christian religion.


[1]  Villarroel, F., ed., Pien Cheng-Chiao Chen-Ch’uan Shi Lu  辩正教真传实录, Spanish trans., Apologia de la Verdadera Religion, English trans., Testimony of the True Religion, Manila: UST Press, 1986. 

[2]  Jiménez, J. A. C., Spanish Friars in the Far East: Fray Juan Cobo and His Book Shi Lu, Historia Scientiarum, Vol.7-3, 1998, pp.181-198.

[3]  Wang Chongmin 王重民,Zhongguo Shanbenshu Tiyao中国善本书提要, Shanghai: Guji Press, 1983, p. 364.

[4]  Pelliot, P., Notes sur quelgues livres ou documents chinois conservés en Espagne, T’oung Pao, Vol. 26, 1928, esp. pp. 44-46.

[5]  Fang Hao方豪,Zhongguo Tianzhujiaoshi Renwu Zhuan中国天主教史人物传,Vol.1, Beijing:  Zhonghua Shuju1988pp. 83-88.

* The author is grateful to Dr. JoséAntonio Cervera for providing him with a copy of Fidel Villarroel’s edition of Juan Cobo’s  Shilu [1] , the main source upon which this paper is based. He is also indebted to Dr. Catherine Jami and Prof. Joseph Dauben for their help in correcting the English and for their useful comments as well.  

[1] Cobo, Carta a los religiosos, see [1], p.60.

[2] The other two are the Shilu, also by Juan Cobo, as discussed in greater detail below; and the Doctrina Christiana en Lengua Espanǒla y Tagala, written by Dominicans who has also settled in the Philippines.

[3] I am grateful to Dr. Adrian Dudink for providing me several references about the Mingxin Baojian, among them, Wang Chongmin attributed it to a Taoist work compiled in the Song-Yuan periods. See [3].

[4] Pelliot did not give further information about the author except his styled name Congdao从道 and his hometown Hangzhou杭州. Apparently Lip-Pun Huan is the name of Fan Liben pronounced in Southern Fujian dialect. See [4]. I am indebted to Dr. Adrian Dudink for his help in confirming this note.

[5] The original title was Tianxue Shiyi 天学实义, which Matteo Ricci himself changed in later editions.

[6] 有地此有土,有土此有人,有人此有财,有财此有用也。是可见地理造作于天主,故天主者地理之主宰;世人运用于地理,故地理者世人之主宰也。

[7] Actually, we do not know whether Juan Cobo even knew about this new cosmology or not, although some authors argue that Cobo had studied astronomy. For example, Villarroel refers that Cobo might use Alexandro Piccolomini’s Della Sfera del Mondo (1540) , see [1], p. 87; [2], p. 197.

[8] According to Aristotle, earth and water are heavy elements, and they can be at rest only when they are at the center of the cosmos, while air and fire have a tendency to rise, so their proper spheres are above the earth. Moreover, the heavenly bodies which were presumably made of a fifth element called “ether”were taken to move around a centrally-positioned earth. As Steven Shapin has pointed out in his The Scientific Revolution (Chicago, 1996), “the cosmos thus spun about the earth, the place where human beings lived, and in just that sense pre-Copernican cosmology was literally anthropocentric”, pp. 22-24.

[9] 中两舟相遇,离有四十里之远,只见桅而已,舡身渺小不见;及至五里间,舡身则在吾目中矣。非舡之能小能大也,盖以水由地中行,地既圆活,水也圆活,水圆活,故舡之行由远及近,人之见舡者由小而能大也。

[10] 使地形而果方也,截然四正,头角分明,则明见百里之外无遗光矣,况山火何难见耶?然又有一人步不离于五里,乃泰山之颠火之光,反不能目见此火矣。非火之能小能大也,盖…火之在山者,近有所蔽;人之见火者,近有所遗也。

[11] 月色微光,借日之光以为光,且为地影冲障其中。…仰观月色分明,中有地之影,如弓之圆者在焉。…每时月蚀每圆而不方。

[12] 欲知天地度数之详,当尊先贤所制备具。天之圆周度数共三百六十,所备具形乃周天四分之一中,应度数九十内,制地形类之。加一绳于地中,察北极于天上,地以一百五十七里举绳转量于天为一度。何以徵之?使人居于中北,则北极当头,才行一百五十七里,以绳量之北极则差一度。如北往南则低一度,以此推之,天地度数从可知矣。地形四分之一该一千五百七十五铺,周围共六千三百铺。

[13] 六合之下,别为六区;析而论之,六区之间,各分三分。对北极者三分,对南极者亦三分也。然近南北之地,四时无定。其中二分之气甚冷,虽重裘救寒不能止其寒矣,世人不能居斯冷地也。而分之气虽热,谁能去热?…故可以制其热者也可以居其地。至于二分之气冷热相和,冬时冷则饮汤矣,冬裘矣,夏时热则饮水矣,夏葛矣。及时之春时之秋,和宣畅,温凉得宜。

[14] 人迹罕至,其详不可

[15] 光明先圣学者有曰:“率性之谓道,修道之谓教。”性道无二致也,教其有二术乎哉?